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Dan and I got back from vacation in San Francisco on Saturday. In addition to the amazing photographs, delicious food (Humphry Slocombe ice cream = nommm), scenic landscapes and unforgettable wine (Gundlach Bundschu = mmm), the trip also delivered serious peace of mind. One reason: I went to the Owning Pink Center as a patient of Dr. Lissa Rankin’s, who you may also know as the author of the book that comes out today (and which you should own ASAP!) What’s Up Down There? Questions You’d Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend (St. Martin’s). See, the thing is, she actually is my very good friend. That’s just one reason why I wanted her to also be my doctor, because last month, I realized that I’ve been grappling with hormone-related symptoms for far too long…

Rewind to two days after my 27th birthday. My regular OB/GYN—who had ben a piece of cake to deal with when I was on the dreaded Pill—began to strike me as standoff-ish. Her in-and-out in 5 minutes flat attitude wasn’t going to cut it. I decided that I needed to sit down with someone wise, compassionate and interested in treating me holistically—as a whole person, not just a handful of acute symptoms. Enter Lissa.

This is one doctor who doesn’t wear a white coat and stand and preach while you sit and listen. On Thursday, Lissa wore a purple dress while we sat in her cozy office’s plush chairs and discussed my sex life, my stress level, my blood work and my fertility. It’s definitely easier to open up about all of these topics when your doctor is your friend. But even if she isn’t, you’d probably feel immediately at ease simply because her office is a warm, welcoming place.

We weren’t more than 20 minutes into our session—Lissa devotes an hour to each patient—when she looked at my labs that I had done in March with my NJ endocrinologist. “Wow, your TSH level!”

I said, “Wait, what?”

In the moment, I was so focused on Nonclassical Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia as the epicenter of all of my ailments that I couldn’t remember what TSH was. Lissa explained that it’s Thyroid-Stimulating Hormone, which the pituitary gland overproduces when the thyroid is sluggish in producing thyroxine, a metabolism-stimulating hormone. And while my levels are in the realm of what clinicians consider “normal,” Lissa noted that most people at my level tend to not feel very well.

Fatigue = not OK. (Image via obo-bobolina/Flickr)

Then, she asked me some follow-ups… How is my quality of sleep? I heard myself say, “Bad.” (Whoa, I thought to myself! I never really said that out loud before, but I guess my sleep isn’t really what I want it to be… I want to be able to fall asleep and stay asleep better. I told her this.) How is my skin? Combo/itchy sometimes, too. How is my energy level? Poor. I never met a nap I didn’t want to take. Just about any time of the day. I’m especially tired around 3 p.m. daily. And by the time I get home from work, I just want to throw myself on the couch. I’ve always chalked that up to stress, sitting all day at work, the wrong or nonexistent snacks perhaps. But, no, it’s more than that. Do I wake up feeling energized? Rarely. Have I had a ridiculously hard time trying to lose a small amount of weight? YES! Does anyone in my family have a history of thyroid problems? (It can be genetic.) Yes, yes, YES. My Grandma E, who I am pretty sure I take after biologically, was diagnosed with hypothyroidism at…get this…age 27!

Soon, Lissa concluded that yep, I’m symptomatic of hypothyroidism, or a sluggish, underactive thyroid. Treatment could get the gland chugging like it should, in turn, bolstering my energy. Not to mention the other symptoms… The thyroid and metabolism influence so many other body processes. In fact, hypothyroidism can prevent effective weight loss, cause weight gain, cause thinning of the hair, increased sensitivity to cold, muscle aches, dry skin, etc. I’d been wondering why I had been dealing with various symptoms – I had been wishing and hoping for answers. But none came, until I saw Lissa as a patient.

I read later that many people with thyroid problems don’t have any stand-out symptoms other than feeling “off” overall. So why isn’t it something that most doctors regularly look at or take into consideration more frequently? Why do numbers on lab work have to be astronomically high or deliriously low for them to do anything for us? Lissa explained that “normal” hormone levels are based on a given healthy population; most docs won’t treat you unless you’re in the lower 5th percentile or upper 95th percentile. But she’s found that patients may not feel very well when they’re on one side of the extreme (say, 60th-90th percentile). And they do fantastically with treatment.

Image via Son of Groucho/Flickr

I’m the opposite of Rx happy, but when Lissa suggested treating me with bioidentical (meaning the body can actually recognize the drug as identical to what the body produces) thyroid hormones, I could have shouted, “Sign me up!” It was like she found a missing puzzle piece, and I was stepping back to look at the completed masterpiece…

…Well, not quite. There’s still the NCAH, which I plan to work on with Lissa’s naturopath/partner, Lisa Brent, N.D. And other puzzle pieces that are floating out there. But I am confident now that I’ll find them, and that I have the support I need now to feel fully vital.

I’ve said it before, but I feel more strongly than ever now that we all deserve doctors who will will treat us as whole people, not just numbers on a chart. We deserve to be heard and to have our concerns validated. We deserve doctors who will look out for us as if they were our best friend. If that doesn’t describe your doctor, and you have concerns about any aspect of well-being … I strongly encourage you not to settle and to keep searching until you find the right doctor. She or he may help you find answers to questions that you didn’t know you’ve been asking all along.

Whoo! It’s Friday! I can’t believe that it’s a been a week since I attended a media event called Sex. Brain. Body. in Manhattan. I’ve been meaning to do a little bit of reporting on it. Sponsored by the Society for Women’s Health Research, the event featured Dr. Laura Berman, Ph.D., Oprah’s go-to sexpert, Dr. Susan Kellogg-Spadt (co-founder of The Pelvic and Sexual Health Institute of Philadelphia) and actress Lisa Rinna (known her roles on Dancing with the Stars and Melrose Place) who were all on hand to discuss a new educational campaign that focuses on female sexual health and the role the brain is thought to play in desire. There’s a lot to be said on the topic, but a week after the presentation, what keeps ringing in my head is something that Dr. Berman said to me when we sat down one-on-one. I asked her what advice she would most like to give to women who are concerned that their sexual desire is lacking. She replied, “Be your own health advocate. Stand up for yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask the questions that you want the answers to.”

Obviously, this isn’t only applicable to women’s sexual health.

Dr. Berman says, "Be your own health advocate." (Photo via Canada.DK.com)

 

Yeah, it does seem that a lot of us get especially nervous or feel rushed or flustered when we’re face-to-face with our OB/GYNs, as opposed to a general practitioner or say, dermatologist. But Dr. Berman’s advice is crucial in any case where you’re seeking out info about your personal health.

I’ve faced a handful of medical issues in the past two years—from the extremely painful and serious (an extremely herniated disc in my lumbar spine) to the superficial and benign (an chronic itchy rash all over my upper back and face)—that molded me into a hardened veteran of personal health advocacy.

It’s really been quite educational. I’ve learned that…

…not every drug a doctor prescribes is necessary, helpful and in fact, some may actually cause side effects that are worse than the symptoms I was initially seeking treatment for. (The Pill is one thing. How about being told to take steroids because my hormone levels are slightly elevated? No thanks. Take an acid reducer indefinitely, even if my digestive troubles are just stress-induced? Why?)

Do you really need to take these? (Illustration via TipsforHealth.net)

 

…sadly, not every doctor really has my best interest at heart. (In the thick of my lower back troubles, I saw a neurosurgeon who asserted that I needed a spinal fusion surgery. When I saw another doctor for a second opinion, he said something to the effect of, “No, dear. You’re a candidate for a much less invasive procedure” and implied that the other doctor was probably looking to “ring the cash register” with a more complicated surgery that would throw a bone to medical device manufacturers.)

…some doctors are only treating stand-out symptoms or one blood test result or diagnosis. I’ve heard from doctors themselves that this happens for many reasons: Because a doctor always goes “by the book,” because they’re rushed, because they’re exhausted, because they’re burned out (just like an 80 year-old biology teacher I had in high school who never taught and handed out worksheets every single day), because they’re pressured by drug companies, because they’re underpaid and over-scheduled and generally pissed off.

Please understand, my aim here is not to bash any and every doctor. I’ve happily met quite a few health practitioners lately who are deeply committed to treating their patients holistically, striving to help them feel not just well—but vital. I just want to make a case for why it is so very important to stand up for yourself when it comes to your health.

It really pays to do some digging on your own. (Photo via warwick.ac.uk)

 

A few tricks of the trade I’ve made habits of: Research your symptoms or your diagnosis online or by asking friends or family members who may have had the same issue. Write down what you want to ask your doctor before your appointment, and bring your questions with you. (Sometimes I’ll procrastinate and find myself typing up my Qs or key points using the Notes feature on my iPhone while in the waiting room.) Ask about the side effects and necessity of your prescriptions. Of course, some drugs that you’re prescribed are necessary, but it seems that many prescriptions are written arbitrarily. For instance, why take antibiotics for a viral infection? When doctors use vague terms to describe a condition or a procedure, ask them if they could please clarify. Someone very close to me actually saw a doctor recently who referred to the patient’s anus as “you know, where you go.” True story. That’s when she knew it was time to find another doctor. Don’t wait for multiple red flags to pop up before looking for a compassionate health care provider. Dr. Berman told me that when it comes to finding the right doctor, your search may require that you kiss a few frogs before you find your prince or princess.

"Are you my dream doctor?" (Photo via everybodyloveskiss.com)

 

Bottom-line: No one else will (or really should) care about your health and well-being as much as you. So, if you must, declare a war, fight a battle or just get a little fired up when talking to someone in a lab coat, because it’ll always be worth it. You owe it to you.

Check out a little further reading here.
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